Is this the future of cocktail menus?

Cocktails are seeing all kinds of innovation these days — but not often the menus that list those drinks.  Sometimes it seems like nothing much has changed since the invention of those always-sticky laminated menus.

But in recent weeks, I’ve noticed some innovative and compelling approaches to cocktail menu presentation. Of course, there’s the “axis approach” on Pouring Ribbons’ menu, which plots all the drink on an axis spanning from “comforting” to “adventurous,” and from “refreshing” to “spirituous.” And there are the growing ranks of iPad menus, which sometimes use technology to provide a little extra information about items, such as winemaker videos.

But the two following menus display a tremendous amount of thought about design and drink concepts, as well as high production values.  Are either of these  likely to set a new template for cocktail menus going forward?

Exhibit A:  Menu-as-Book:  Dead Rabbit

The Bar at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast made waves years ago when they started publishing cocktail menu books, and I spotted a couple of copycat menus-as-books during a trip to Dublin a few months back. But the idea hasn’t caught on here in the U.S. But now that Sean Muldoon has moved stateside to open his new Dead Rabbit outpost in NY’s Wall Street area, he’s brought his menu books — and their high production values — here as well.  A look at the menu:

DR_full monty

This is the full monty: the hard-backed drink menu book on the left, a seasonal drink update in the middle, and the soft-backed spirits list book on the right.

DR_cocktail menu

A closer look at the cocktail menu. It feels like soft leather, and is published by Drinksology.com. Can’t help wondering how the cover will hold up after a few drinks are spilled on the outside.

DR_illustrations

A look inside the book: one of the few spreads with more than a minimum of color.

drink page

A listing of punches, served in individual portions. The format here follows throughout the menu pages – illustration and quote on the left, menu on the right.

DR_TOC

It’s an extensive little book – so extensive as to require a Table of Contents to navigate.

DR_Spirits

Here’s a look inside the Spirits List. It lists not only product name and the price per pour, but also extensive tasting notes, the proof, the country of origin, and for ryes and whiskeys, the mash bill! I’ll be hanging on to this document for future reference.

 

Exhibit B:  Menu-as-Newspaper:  The Vault at Pfaff’s

Another interesting use of medium – instead of the super-permanent book, The Vault at Pfaff’s has opted to go with the super-disposable newspaper format. The top lists cocktails, and wines are listed inside, spirits on the back. It’s a clever nod to the fact that The Saturday Press was published in the same space that now houses the bar — 157 issues of the literary weekly were published from the 1850s through the 1860s, with a hiatus for the Civil War. (An aside: thanks to Lehigh University, you can browse copies of The Saturday Post online.)

Although it’s an eye-catching and tactile experience to hold newsprint, a nice nod back to the historic space, it has failed in one way, beverage manager Frank Caiafa confided:  “We thought people would want to take them home, as a keepsake,” he said. “But people seem to think they’re too nice to take!” Luckily, I had no such compunctions, and here are a few snaps of my menu:

VP- menu

The front of the newspaper-style menu. Insane scrawlings and circles are mine – not part of the design!

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A look inside the newspaper. I’m not sure how this works on nights when the bar is crowded – I have trouble finding space to open a newspaper on a subway, let alone a crowded bar.

VP_ad

A closer look at one of the “ads” on the inside — they’re not advertisements at all, and no one has paid to be featured in the menu, Caiafa says. Some are antique scraps of text, others provide information about a specific brand (here, Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin) that Caiafa thought guests would want to learn more about.

A peek at Junoon’s spice room

I finally found a bar that loves spices in cocktails as much as I do:  the bar at Junoon.

Although the restaurant is its own brand of Indian Nouveau-Fabulous, they throw spices into their cocktails like nobody’s business. So far my favorites have been the Ginger Rose (gin, lychee, egg white, fresh ginger), and the Fall Daiquiri, which is made with muddled spices. Check out the drink menu here, although it’s not quite up to date with the cocktails being served at the bar now, like the spring-seasonal Rhubarb Cooler.

But something blew me away even more than the drinks:  the spice room, hidden downstairs. Check it out in the photos below. On one wall, they’ve even posted their various recipes for curry mixes used in the restaurant. I didn’t think publishing those pages on the Internet would be quite fair.  You’ll have to go check it out for yourself.

A guy walks into a bar (and says, “make me a drink”)

Cocktail omakase at EN Japanese Brasserie

My article on bespoke and “omakase” cocktails is out in the Jan/Feb issue of Food Arts magazine

Yes, just as cocktail menus have become an industry standard, it’s become a knowledgeable wink among savvy imbibers to ask the bartender to stray from that list.

One of my favorite parts of the article is the sidebar:  I asked several bartenders to “make me a drink” appropriate for cold-weather tippling. If pressed, I also specified dark spirits (rye or Bourbon), spirit-forward, and appropriate to drink before dinner. It was amazing to see the variety of drinks that bartenders constructed within those directives! The bartenders included Michael Neff of Ward III; Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common; Leo Robitschek of Eleven Madison Park; Eric Alperin of The Varnish; Brian Floyd of The Vanderbilt; and Gen Yamamoto of EN Japanese Brasserie.

Speaking of EN Japanese Brasserie, I was there for the Food Arts photo shoot (the photo above is mine, taken of the drinks assembled for the professionals to capture on film). Here’s my blog post from that outing.

Tales Preview: Spirited Dinners, Spicy Cocktails

Tales of the Cocktail is just one week away!  Already my mind is in New Orleans.

One of last year’s highlights was the tiki-themed Spirited Dinner. This year, I’ve already reserved my spot for RioMar. (holler if you’ll be there too!)  In browsing through the options, I’m delighted by the bold cocktail choices dotting the menus, such as:

Gabriel’s Share (@ Bacco): Cognac, Sauternes, black peppercorns, sweet cherries  (Quite a few peppercorn-spiked cocktails on the menus this year!)

Ocam’s Second Thought (@Boucherie) Bols Genever, Domaine de Canton, Trader Tiki vanilla syrup, Thai chile pepper

Pop (@Coquette) celery soda, vodka, Louisana hot sauce, lemon juice & peel, celery seeds

Paulina Meat Market Cooler (@Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse) Meat-infused cachaca, roasted chipotle pepper, agave nectar, fresh watermelon juice, lime juice

And yes, that only takes me to “D” in the list of restaurants, which should give an indication of how many other fabulous spicy cocktails are available if you make it through the entire list. Go ahead, make a reservation. You know you want to.

Cocktailing: Why Brooklyn wishes it was Portland

I’m back from the IACP conference in Portland, Oregon, and I have to say, Portland is one city that knows how to get its geek on. I’ve never seen so many passionate foodies in one place (and I’m not even referring to the conference). Everywhere, there’s great coffee, great cocktails, great food. A sprawling greenmarket that makes my precious Union Square look like a postage stamp. Everyone seems to be making something or building a small business, and sporting a deeply personal tattoo while they’re at it. It just feels like a place where it’s easy to find one’s tribe.

In other words, it’s like the the best bits of what has become funky Brooklyn sprawl were all mashed together into one clean, rain-swept, bike-able small community, minus the Manhattan envy.

Let’s take cocktail culture, for example. (You knew I was going there eventually…) And it is indeed a culture.  Perhaps it’s because real estate prices are just so much lower than other metro areas, and scale is less of an issue, it seems like anyone with an artisan cocktail pipe dream can open a bar (hello, Beaker & Flask!) or start a business (hello, Trader Tiki and Aviation gin!)

My first day at IACP, I sat next to a local denizen who insisted that “Portland is a beer city located within wine country. Cocktails are a far third.” After spending some time in the local watering holes, I have to heartily disagree. Yes, there is plenty of great local beer and wine — especially the latter. I finally understand all of the references to “good bread” in France. The vinious equivalent of “good wine” surely must refer to the enjoyable, drinkable stuff made in Willamette Valley.

But the cocktails!  What I loved most about Portland’s cocktail scene was the  joy everyone seemed to take in experimentation.  I didn’t get to try every place I wanted (sorry, Teardrop Lounge…Saucebox…Belly Timber…Vault. next time, I promise).  But here are some places I did get to try, and highly recommend:

Cocktail shakers at Beaker & Flask

Beaker & Flask:  I was lucky enough to have Patrick Coleman, food editor from the alt-weekly Portland Mercury, as my tour guide for an evening. He knows all the bartenders and best tippling spots, plus he’s quite the snappy dresser so it was fun to be seen with him. Our first stop was Beaker & Flask, one of those spots where they embrace local brands and make their own grenadine, syrups, and coconut water ice cubes. I tried The Triple Lindy (Muscat Grappa, Riesling Syrup, fresh lime and lemon, demerara sugar). It was light and oddly floral, although it grew on me the more I sipped.

“It’s an intellectual drink,” Patrick quipped. “It’s like someone you respect, but don’t enjoy talking to.” His drink, Between the Posts (Rock & Rye soda, fresh grapefruit, Campari, Peychaud’s bitters), would have been the better dinner companion.  I swiped the menu on the way out -scroll down if you’d like a closer look.

Thatch:  A sweet little tiki bar, kitch, pupu platters and all. I was astounded that we easily scored seats at the bar, which would never, never happen on a weekday night in New York.  We were offered a preview of the new spring/summer menu, which hadn’t yet been printed up (nothing for me to pocket, alas). I tried a fabulous, fragrant rum drink called “The Broadway Baby.” It was also quite potent, as tiki drinks often are, so I can’t recall what else was in the drink.

Clyde Commons Negroni

Clyde Common:  I went later in the week, explicitly to try something with Jeff Morgenthaler’s famed barrel-aged spirits, and settled on a Negroni. And yes, everything you’ve read about it being the best Negroni you’ve ever had are true. About halfway through the drink, Morgenthaler slid over another drink, in a slightly smaller glass, and uttered those magic words that are like catnip to a drinks journalist:  “It’s not on the menu yet.” It was Robert Hess’s Trident creation, equal parts Cynar, Sherry, and Whiskey (here, barrel aged about 8 weeks). 

Again, I swiped the menu (last seen beneath my cocktail, in the photo at right). And again, I’m scanning it so you can view it below.

Bar Ten 01:  I went, but didn’t stay, since it was understandably packed on a Saturday evening. But since I saw charming barkeep Kelley Swenson at an IACP event earlier in the week and thoroughly enjoyed his Chamomile Sour cocktail there, I say it counts.

Beaker & Flask Cocktail Menu

Clyde Commons cocktail menu

We’re All Famous For 15 Minutes

There are definitely certain perks to covering the booze beat.  One of them is having a drink named after you.

Working on a story about fall apple and pear cocktails, I walked into O’Neals’ on the Upper West Side one evening and requested a cocktail menu. “We don’t have that,” bartender Dave scoffed. “But tell me what you want, and I’ll make it.”

I requested “something with apples,” but not a dreaded apple martini. Ever the pro, Dave puzzled over the drink for all of a split second, and quickly came up with the main ingredient: Calvados brandy, which I love. A pour of this, a splash of that, a quick go-round in a silver shaker, and it was all done.

“Do you like it?” Dave asked. Absolutely. It was very strong, almost medicinal like a drink with bitters, but the aftertaste was mellow, fruity and pleasant. Definitely a winner in my book.

“What’s your name?” I told him. “We’ll name it after you,” he said.

While I bet he says that to all the girls, I’m still psyched to have my own cocktail, and a damn good one, too. I dare you to go to O’Neals’ and order it by name.

“The Kara” Cocktail

 2 parts Calvados brandy

1 part vodka

Splash of Rose’s lime juice

Mix ingredients together, and pour into an Old-Fashioned glass, over ice. Garnish with a slice of fresh red apple.